My husband’s favorite movies are the black and white “B” movies from the fifties—the ones that never quite made the rounds, but are shown on certain stations between lots of commercial breaks. I think it’s because he works nights and his hours are all turned around so the movies help him sleep. (Although Tarantula is a special favorite and he can even tell you the plot, assuming there is one.)
I’m with him on the black and white part, though. My favorites are the 1930s and 40s movies with sassy heroines—the reporter played by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Joan Blondell in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and all the characters played by Katherine Hepburn. Women in those films weren’t wimpy like they were in fifties films. Yeah, some of them fainted from time to time, but never the heroines. And they weren’t all plastic-surgeried up like they are today.
As my friend Jennifer says, they looked like us—in better clothes.
What happened to women in the 1950s? It was a decade when men who returned from the war wanted their jobs back in factories, offices and newsrooms. Women were expected to leave the jobs they’d taken during World War II and go back home. Movies and magazines pitched in to romanticize marriage, cooking and keeping house.
At the same time, women who became stars in this era were round and full bodied (good) but sounded like little girls (bad). Marilyn Monroe was the ideal, and though she looked wonderful, she was constantly pitched as the dumbest blonde on the block (though she wasn’t). Being dumb was code for being smart, because you were supposed to use your womanly wiles, not intelligence, to snag a rich man. What it meant in Hollywood is that the tough, funny, sexy stars of the thirties and forties didn’t have a chance.
The first black and white film I fell in love with was To Have and Have Not, which I saw with an older boyfriend in college. I had no idea what was happening from beginning to end; but I was hooked from the first sentence and by the time it was over, would have done anything I could to become the sly, angular, impossibly sexy Lauren Bacall. She was alive, for one thing, in every way possible. Alive and real—not some idealized version of what a woman should be.
None of this, by the way, means women in 1930s movies couldn’t be dumb or silly. But few were as one-dimensional as the women in 1950s movies (and I don’t mean to pick on Monroe, who was extremely talented). Katherine Hepburn in Bringing up Baby may have been a ditz, but she was a cool ditz who adopted a pet leopard and got Cary Grant to change his life. And the marriage of Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man movie is my model of what a marriage should be.
But if the films of the 1950s mainly glorified passive females, how did we get the Beats? Women artists and writers in 1958 were ambitious and adventurous. Of course, if you try seeing a movie from that period that’s supposed to be about Beats, good luck finding anyone you’d want to know for five minutes. (If you find one, send it my way—I’d love you to prove me wrong. If you find two, I’ll sing a song or something.) I think Hollywood became afraid of smart women until the late sixties—and even then it took a while to get some lead characters like Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.
I have to say though, I’d still rather watch To Have and Have Not or The Thin Man than most of the movies I’m seeing now. Sometimes I feel like the women in current films are really men in disguise. They fit into hipless jeans, they fight off bad guys with a single blow and have 30 masters’ degrees from 16 colleges. Do you know any of them?
With The Beat on Ruby’s Street, I wanted to create a young girl growing up in an alternate society where pretty was less important than being cool, because as lead character Ruby’s mother says, pretty fades but cool does not. I know that my character Ruby’s version of cool is skewed by her own experience and that of course it’s different for everyone. But just having an alternate way of looking at life in the 1950s—that doesn’t call for fainting, bimbo heroines—seems pretty cool to me.
Not that I wouldn’t mind sitting through Tarantula with that man of mine. If we could just get him to work days once in a while.
This column was originally published at Book Lover Place.